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What ‘Defund The Police’ Means In A New York Neighborhood With High Homicide Rates and a History of Struggling for Justice

Although there’s a diversity of views about law enforcement in Brownsville, Brooklyn, there’s widespread agreement that the community is still fighting to obtain all the resources it needs to thrive and police itself.

(Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo by Getty Images.)

At a time when cities across the country are talking about shrinking police budgets and reimagining the role of law enforcement, what do people living in a neighborhood with one of New York City’s highest homicide rates actually want? 

Many outsiders only know Brownsville, Brooklyn, as a dangerous place. It has long suffered the brunt of racist city policies, was one of the neighborhoods most beleaguered by the unconstitutional practice of stop and frisk and has some of the city’s highest incarceration rates. A report in May found its residents were heavily targeted by the NYPD for breaking social distancing rules

Yet the neighborhood has a long, proud history of fighting for racial justice and community control, and the discussions unfolding there now could be instructive for other areas of the country that are grappling with how to simultaneously reduce police violence and violence within the community. 

“As we are looking at how we are connected to the national fight, we have to remember that people are talking about us,” City Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel said July 28 at a virtual town hall about reimagining policing in Brownsville. “And we have to make sure that we are protecting our community and that we are fighting for our own community, and that we are occupying in our own communities.”

At the town hall, elected officials, advocates and residents discussed how to make Brownsville’s precinct more accountable to residents, what kinds of investments are needed to heal trauma and create alternative systems to reduce the excessive presence of law enforcement, and how local elected officials and community members can strengthen their partnership to effect change.

Hosted by the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Equity Coalition, about 30 community-based organizations that formed an alliance in the midst of the recent national Black Lives Matter uprisings, the town hall is the first of several that the group intends to hold, with the next one likely to occur in early fall. The coalition, according to the coalition’s Facebook page, “seeks to identify and dismantle anti-Black racist policies and practices that have perpetuated cycles of trauma in our community.” And it aims to create unity around a platform of recommendations, culminating in a community-wide rally also likely to happen in early fall.

Brownsville’s efforts come as cities across the country are struggling with the economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and an accompanying rise in violence. By Aug. 2, the 73rd Precinct in Brownsville had recorded 60 shooting victims in 2020, up from 35 by that time last year. Conservative politicians have blamed anti-police rhetoric and criminal justice reforms for the spike, while some Black leaders have expressed concern that police officers might be retaliating against recent police reforms with slower response times. 

During the town hall and in a dozen interviews with The Appeal, residents and advocates said violence in Brownsville is symptomatic of poverty and a multitude of still unaddressed needs for youth and recreation programs, job opportunities, mental health services, and other basic services. The community can only become safer if those needs are addressed, they said.

Many also supported expanding alternatives to the use of law enforcement, like violence-prevention and mediation programs, though a few had concerns about whether these efforts had been effective so far. Many also discussed the need for better training for police, and for residents to have a say in the selection process for local officers, though a couple others pushed back and called for more systemic approaches. Residents’ support for the institution of policing as a whole varies, and some said generational differences are at times at play, with older residents more likely than younger ones to approve of a police presence. 

“I think the common denominator, what we all are saying, is that it’s time for us to step up, and I think everyone in Brownsville is looking for support, so that we can all have a hand in policing our own community,” said Camara Jackson, a Brownsville native and the executive director of Elite Learners, a nonprofit that provides a variety of services to families and youth in Brownsville and recently opened an East Flatbush office. 

“Although the answer seems to be more police presence, it’s actually about the effectiveness of what it is that you can do,” she told The Appeal. “Our young people, our young adults are more likely to listen to someone who listens to them, comes from where they’re from, and has walked those life experiences that they are now walking.”

The future of the 73rd Precinct

Brownsville advocates are discussing ways to ensure the 73rd Precinct is truly accountable to the neighborhood. Some residents said police relations had deteriorated under a commander who was recently transferred out, and a study released this month on gun possession among young adults in Brownsville, East Harlem, and Morrisania found that while 88 percent reported seeing the police patrolling daily, only 9 percent of people felt they could trust them. According to the study, many participants criticized the police for going after “the wrong things”—making excessive arrests for minor offenses and not protecting the community from violent crime.   

Both the equity coalition and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who spoke at the town hall, have developed proposals that would give neighborhood representatives more of a say in the selection of the precinct commanders for their own neighborhoods. Adams added that he believes the neighborhood should also play a role in “looking at the officers assigned,” and that the NYPD’s psychological exam for officers should be revamped to identify racist tendencies. He also said that recently released police disciplinary records should be “incorporated into the selection process”—though Chief Jeffrey Maddrey of the NYPD’s Community Affairs Bureau expressed concerns about the disciplinary records not being a good measure of officers’ conduct.

The town hall also included a discussion of trainings for police officers, with some arguing that the NYPD’s current implicit bias training is too short and insufficient, and coalition member Celina Trowell stressing the need for an anti-racist curriculum that goes beyond identifying biases and actually educates officers on systemic racism. Others expressed interest in pipelines to ensure Brownsville’s own youth become Brownsville’s police officers, or recommended that police work close to the communities where they live, or in similar communities, and spend some time working for local community-based organizations. (NYPD officers are currently not allowed to live in the precincts where they work, purportedly to reduce officers’ bias and favoritism.) 

“How transformative would it be to have the responsibility to care for your fellow community members and neighbors, rather than to view them as ‘other’?” Dionne Grayman, a resident and a co-founder of the health and wellness nonprofit We Run Brownsville, told The Appeal.

State Senator Zellnor Myrie, however, said during the town hall that he objected to the NYPD’s frequent use of additional training as a form of discipline for conduct violations. He argued that training was an ineffective remedy that fractures communities’ trust in the NYPD and that officers must face actual consequences. Other participants mentioned the possibility of establishing an elected Civilian Complaint Review Board and the need to examine the protections written into police union contracts.

Yet for Nupol Kiazolu, a Brownsville resident and president of Black Lives Matter Greater New York, strategies focused on improving police conduct were no longer enough. “I’m done with reform. … We cannot move forward with this system anymore,” she told The Appeal. “The system of policing as we know it must be abolished.” 

She was not the only Brownsville advocate open to the idea of police abolition. These advocates explained that abolition would not happen overnight and would require the collective work of imagining new systems to ensure public safety, and heal victims and those who break the law.  

“The road to abolition—it’s a process,” Trowell told The Appeal. “It’s about abolishing the carceral responses like the little policemans and the little NIMBY landlords in our mind. … A revolution of social relationships.”

Others, however, were more focused on improving systems that currently exist, preferred the idea of “reimagining” police, or felt that, even in a just world, police would still be needed for serious crimes.

“I’m in complete agreement with defunding the police—but … we are not talking about getting rid of the police, we are talking about reallocating the funds,” C. Aaron Hinton, a resident and founder of the youth empowerment and community development organization D.U.E.C.E.S., said in an interview. “I believe as a people we can ‘police’ our own communities, however we are not capable of ‘enforcing the law.’”

He explained that by “‘police’ our own communities” he meant the community should find new ways for residents to hold each other accountable for harm to each other, use locally organized conflict resolution and violence reduction programs, and divert people to better paths through access to resources and opportunities—but law enforcement officers would be needed in some cases. 

Community control of conflict resolution

Brownsville advocates are also discussing the range of investments the neighborhood would need to facilitate healing and well-being in the community, and to create the infrastructure that would allow community workers to intervene in crisis moments before they escalate, thereby reducing the need to turn to the police for every conflict. 

Several models came up during the town hall, including Eugene, Oregon’s Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) program, which allows residents to use the city’s emergency number and a non-emergency number to obtain round-the-clock crisis intervention from nurses and crisis workers. Another is Cure Violence, first implemented in Chicago, under which credible messengers are trained to mediate conflicts within a community so they are resolved peacefully, respond to shootings to prevent retaliations, as well as connect high-risk individuals to opportunities and resources. Messengers are often people from those same communities who have themselves been involved in or exposed to gun violence. (Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, while not present at the town hall, has been calling for the replication of Advance Peace, a model in which credible mentors provide even deeper mentorship for high-risk individuals.)

The Cure Violence model in particular has gained traction in New York City in recent years, boosted by stories of success. One study found that the neighborhood of East New York, Brooklyn, saw a 50 percent reduction in gun injuries after the implementation of a Cure Violence program, compared to nearby Flatbush, Brooklyn, where there was no program and only a 5 percent reduction in gun injuries, among other findings. (The study measured gun injuries when comparing the six years before and after the implementation of East New York’s program.)

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has increased investment in Cure Violence and established the Crisis Management System, a network that encompasses all the city’s Cure Violence program providers who collectively reach parts of 21 of the city’s 77 precincts, according to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ). New York City’s Cure Violence program is the largest in the country. 

Expansion efforts within two of those precincts have been delayed because of pandemic-related budget cuts, but in June, the mayor announced he would invest an additional $10 million in the program, bringing the total investment in the Crisis Management System, including City Council funding, to almost $40 million for fiscal year 2021. The increased funding will enable more staffing at existing sites and the addition of another five precincts, representatives from MOCJ explained. 

In the last five years, several Brownsville nonprofits have joined the Crisis Management System. One of them is Brownsville Think Tank Matters, which director Ronald Robertson says since its founding almost six years ago has helped hundreds of residents obtain job training, offered nonviolence workshops for students, mediated conflicts between residents and gang members, held events to combat violence, and more.    

Yet Brownsville’s Cure Violence organizations say extra funding is still greatly needed. Elite Learners, which also runs a Cure Violence program, has about 10 violence interrupters on staff, but Jackson says it could easily use at least 50 people. At the town hall, three of Brownsville’s Cure Violence groups made a call for $1.5 million annually for each organization’s public safety initiatives. (Jackson says her organization’s total revenues in 2019 were about $370,000, of which only a small share goes to public safety initiatives.) New York State Assemblymember Latrice Walker, whose district includes much of Brownsville, further called for a $1.5 billion investment in Cure Violence across the state.

Some noted the difference between the NYPD and Cure Violence budgets: Though the city did make some cuts to the police expense budget this June, at $5.2 billion the NYPD still receives more than 100 times what the violence prevention program receives.

A few people interviewed in July were not convinced the Cure Violence nonprofits in Brownsville were succeeding, arguing that given the money they did have, they did not have a sufficient street presence.  

“You could defund the police department and give it to some organizations, but are they doing right? … I don’t see no flier,” Lisa Kenner, president of the resident association at Van Dyke I, told The Appeal two weeks before the town hall. “If you got that much money, you can get some money to get a sound system” and establish a presence. 

Kenner also expressed concern that the police themselves were not out on the streets as much as they used to be. “We still need police—I don’t care what nobody says. We got to have some kind of order. If you don’t have the police then the military is going to come in, and they’re not going to ask no questions,” she said, though she emphasized the necessity of police receiving proper training and building relationships with community youth.

Funds allocated in the city’s budget, however, can take months before they reach the intended recipients.

“When resources do come to a neighborhood like Brownsville, oftentimes those resources come with bureaucracy,” said Deron Johnston, director of the Brownsville Community Justice Center, which is also supporting the neighborhood’s Cure Violence expansion. He also stressed that Cure Violence does take time to make an impact, and that the investment to address poverty, and to address violence as a public health emergency, remains terribly inadequate. “If there’s an expectation that we’re going to see results in a day, if we’re going to see results in a week, or if we’re going to see results in four weeks … that’s just not going to happen.”  

Healing from trauma

Several interviewees also posed more open-ended questions about what kinds of internal work the community must do to disrupt cycles of violence. The equity coalition’s focus on mental healing—the town hall even included a guided meditation—reflects an understanding that many Brownsville residents are suffering from trauma. According to the recent study on gun possession in Brownsville and two other high-poverty neighborhoods, the vast majority of young adults said people carry guns to feel powerful or safe, while only a quarter said carrying would make people feel respected. Eighty-eight percent had experienced a family member or friend being shot. 

“When we as people commit violence, it’s very often to try to secure our own safety—and we may be doing that in response to an imminent threat to our safety, but we may also be doing it to establish ourselves in a particular context … as someone who shouldn’t be hurt,” said Danielle Sered, the executive director of Common Justice and an expert on alternatives to incarceration. “People who will grasp for safety more strongly and more decisively are the people whose safety has not been guaranteed.”

“When we heal from trauma we become capable of developing a wider array of strategies to secure our own safety and the safety of those we love, and we regain our balance in a way that helps us return to our capacity to accurately assess whatever danger we might experience,” she said.

Healing can take a variety of forms, including investing in professional psychological services, alternative healing circles, neighborhood residents who are informally known to be healers, and safe spaces for survivors to support each other, Sered said, noting also that healing is deserved regardless of whether a person is considered likely to commit violence again. 

Some of those interviewed also expressed the need for new non-carceral, restorative justice solutions that actually help harmed residents receive healing, and perpetrators of harm show accountability. Sered noted that these avenues are important not only to reduce the incarceration of community members, but also because only a small share of victims of violence actually turn to the police in the first place.

Brownsville residents appeared to unanimously agree that it was critical for the city to invest in healing and mental health solutions, as well as in youth programs, job training, economic development, health and exercise, food sovereignty, and much more. 

“There are so many things that should be birthrights, that are not,” said Genese Morgan, chairperson of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Community Board and a resident of the district. “All of those things contribute to individuals who might [otherwise] become frustrated and end up in an interaction with the police.” She adds that the community is finally receiving some long-awaited investments through the de Blasio administration’s Brownsville Plan.

Several people at the town hall expressed concerns that large nonprofits based outside the community receive the bulk of funds for programs in Brownsville, and that it’s often been difficult for grassroots groups with community ties to thrive, with groups often forced to squeeze themselves into funders’ boxes to obtain support. Brownsville’s elected officials are in part responsible for how funding gets distributed, but they too are frustrated with the slow process of receiving funding from the mayor’s administration. For instance, after the mass shooting in Brownsville last summer, the mayor announced a $9 million investment, but contracts for some of that funding were not executed until May, said Ampry-Samuel, the City Council member. Elected officials stressed the importance of Brownsville residents making their voices heard by all levels of government.

“The currency of democracy is your vote, and you completing the census, and don’t think that they don’t look at those items when we go in and we ask for resources,” said Walker, the Assembly member. “Unless there’s a storm that’s coming behind us so that people know that when we show up we mean business, they’re going to marginalize us or attempt to marginalize us.”